US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned yesterday under pressure after months of controversy and political turmoil that President George W Bush angrily blamed on his administration's critics in Congress.
Bush, who doggedly supported Gonzales during repeated confrontations with the Democratic-controlled Congress, said Gonzales had endured "months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department."
"It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honourable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said before leaving Texas for Republican fund-raisers in New Mexico and Washington.
Gonzales announced at the Justice Department that his resignation would take effect on September 17. He refused to take questions from reporters and gave no reason for his sudden decision to depart after months of controversy.
"I have lived the American dream," said Gonzales, a son of migrant workers who began working for Bush when the president was still the governor of Texas.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," he said.
A senior administration official said the president had not decided on a new nominee.
US Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general, amid speculation that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff could be a candidate for a permanent replacement.
A 52-year-old Bush loyalist, Gonzales was at the centre of a political firestorm over the sacking of federal prosecutors last year, which critics in Congress said were politically motivated. He faced a possible perjury investigation for his testimony before Congress.
Gonzales spoke to Bush by telephone on Friday and then visited him on Sunday at his Crawford ranch, where formally submitted his letter of resignation.
"I have reluctantly accepted his resignation with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country," Bush said.
Current and former administration officials had said the department's integrity had been damaged under Gonzales with controversy over the firing of the prosecutors, his support for Bush's warrantless domestic spying programme adopted after the September 11 attacks and other issues.
Gonzales is the latest member of Bush's inner circle to leave the White House as the administration heads toward the final year of its two-term reign. Top Bush adviser Karl Rove departed last week, following former communications director Dan Bartlett earlier this year.
Reaction from Democrats was swift.
Sen Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blamed Gonzales and Bush for "a severe crisis of leadership" at the Justice Department.
"I hope the attorney general's decision will be a step toward getting to the truth about the level of political influence this White House wields over the Department of Justice and toward reconstituting its leadership," he said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: "This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House."
Like Bush, other Republicans sought to cast Gonzales as a victim of the partisan politics of Democrats who took control of Congress in January. "It is my hope that whomever President Bush selects as the next attorney general, he or she is not subjected to the same poisonous partisanship," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Gonzales worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas in the 1990s. He served as White House lawyer in Bush's first term as president before becoming the first Hispanic attorney general in February 2005.
Before becoming the chief US law enforcement official, Gonzales drew fire from critics of US interrogation policy for writing in January 2002 that parts of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war were "obsolete" and some provisions "quaint."
Officials complained that employee morale at the Justice Department had been hurt during Gonzales' tenure and that attorney general's relations with the Democrats and some Republicans in Congress had deteriorated beyond repair.
While acknowledging mistakes in the handling of the dismissals, Gonzales had denied the firings were politically motivated to influence federal probes involving Democratic or Republican lawmakers.